William H. Fox Talbot: Inventor of the Negative-Positive Process
French Primitive Photography
Paul Strand: A Retrospective Monograph, Vol. I, The Years 1915-1946; Vol. II, The Years 1950-1968
Except for those situations in which the camera is used to document or to mark social rites, what moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful. (The name under which Fox Talbot patented the photograph in 1841 was the calotype: from kalos, beauty.) Nobody exclaims, “Isn’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it.” Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is, “I find that ugly thing…beautiful.”
It is common for those who have glimpsed something beautiful to express regret at not having photographed it. So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that often photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful. House-proud hosts may well pull out photographs of the place to show visitors how really sensational it is. We learn to see ourselves photographically: to regard oneself as attractive is, precisely, to judge that one would look good in a photograph. Photographs create the beautiful and—over generations of picture-taking—use it up. The image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.
Most people are anxious when they’re about to be photographed: not because they fear, as primitives do, being violated but because they fear the camera’s disapproval. People want the idealized image: a photograph of themselves looking their “best.” They feel rebuked when the camera doesn’t return an image of themselves as more attractive than they really are. But few are lucky enough to be “photogenic”—that is, to look better in photographs (even when not made-up or flattered by special lighting) than in real life. That photographs are often praised for their candor, their honesty, indicates that most photographs, of course, are not candid. A decade after the Englishman Fox Talbot’s negative-positive process had begun replacing the French daguerreotype in the early 1840s, a German photographer invented the first technique for retouching the negative. His two versions of the same portrait—one retouched, the other not—astounded crowds at the World Exposition held in Paris in 1855 (one of the earliest world fairs, and the first with a photography exhibit). The news that the camera could lie made getting photographed much more popular.
The consequences of lying have to be more central for photography than they ever can be for painting, because the flat, usually rectangular images which are photographs make a claim to be true that paintings never make. A fake painting (one whose attribution is false) falsifies the history of art. A fake photograph (one which has been retouched or tampered with, or whose caption is false) falsifies reality. The drama of photography has been the struggle between two different imperatives: beautification and truth-telling.
The truth of photographs is measured not only by a notion of value-free truth, a legacy from the sciences, but by romantic ideals of truth-telling, adapted from nineteenth-century literary models and from the new profession of independent journalism. Like the naturalistic novelist and the reporter, the photographer was supposed to unmask hypocrisy and ignorance.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.